U.S. Congressman Walter Jones, North Carolina’s 3rd District representative, has crossed the aisle to file a complaint before the Federal Election Commission seeking to end super PAC – political action committee – spending in US elections. The complaint seeks to reverse a federal appeals court ruling which created super PACs and has resulted in an explosion of spending in elections across the country. Listed on the complaint with Jones, a Republican, are California’s 33rd District Congressman Ted Lieu and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, both Democrats.
We wish them well. Rules in place – since the Citizens United decision of 2010, which declared that it was unconstitutional to restrict a corporation from spending its treasury money to support or attack candidates in elections, and speechnow.org v. FEC, which opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting yearly contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person did not apply to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures” – favor a very few over the well-being of the vast majority.
Statistics cited by the lawmakers indicate that more than 40 percent of super PAC contributions listed prior to April 2016 was donated by 50 individuals and their families. In all, as of late-June, more than $755 million had been contributed to super PACs. Super PACs have now become vehicles for wealthy donors to evade campaign contribution limits designed to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.
The FEC complaint names 10 super PACs as respondents, including the Democratic and Republican super PACs for Senate and House candidates. It alleges that the super PACs “have knowingly accepted and continue to knowingly accept contributions that exceed the $5,000 per contributor limit, in some cases by over a hundredfold.” The $5,000 per contributor limit has remained on the books after the speechnow.org ruling. The FEC complaint seeks enforcement of this $5,000 contribution limit.
Candidates for the House and Senate – at all levels, really – who spend the most money win most of the time, and small donors, those who give less than $1,000, play only a minor roll in fundraising. Big money, and big business, rules, and is rewarded. In North Carolina, for example, businessman Art Pope funded the Republican takeover of our government in 2012 and was subsequently named budget director.
Under these rulings, there is a new era of “dark money” – political donations from donors who cannot be identified – because disclosure requirements are inadequate. In 2014, media spending topped $1 billion with about 40 percent of ads purchased by dark money. We don’t even know who is buying our politicians. And once they are bought, whom do these politicians represent? Will a U.S. Senator or State House Representative vote his or her conscience over the wishes of a big donor?
Claims that limits on political spending are unconstitutional – generally the position of the Roberts Court – play into the hands of the wealthy few. Good public policy suffers when it is not in the best interest of the biggest and most powerful corporations in America. Framing secret money and unlimited contributions as a free speech issue is simply wrong.
“Since the Citizens United and speechnow.org decisions in 2010, I have witnessed the influence of money in politics become more and more pervasive,” Jones said. “I see its influence shape policy in Washington to the detriment of the American people all the time. This effort is an important step towards returning the government to the people.”